Skip to content Skip to site navigation

More Articles


Here’s how you celebrated Earth Day

We asked, and you shared. From moss walls to local picnics to highway cleanups, check out what your fellow readers got up to on this fine Earth Day:

Read more: Living


The worst part about BP’s oil-spill cover-up: It worked

A C-130 Hercules sprays Corexit onto the Gulf of Mexico.
U.S. Air Force
A C-130 Hercules sprays Corexit onto the Gulf of Mexico.

"It’s as safe as Dawn dishwashing liquid.” That’s what Jamie Griffin says the BP man told her about the smelly, rainbow-streaked gunk coating the floor of the “floating hotel” where Griffin was feeding hundreds of cleanup workers during the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Apparently, the workers were tracking the gunk inside on their boots. Griffin, as chief cook and maid, was trying to clean it. But even boiling water didn’t work.

“The BP representative said, ‘Jamie, just mop it like you’d mop any other dirty floor,’” Griffin recalls in her Louisiana drawl.

It was the opening weeks of what everyone, echoing President Barack Obama, was calling “the worst environmental disaster in American history.” At 9:45 p.m. local time on April 20, 2010, a fiery explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig had killed 11 workers and injured 17. One mile underwater, the Macondo well had blown apart, unleashing a gusher of oil into the gulf. At risk were fishing areas that supplied one-third of the seafood consumed in the U.S., beaches from Texas to Florida that drew billions of dollars’ worth of tourism to local economies, and Obama’s chances of reelection. Republicans were blaming him for mishandling the disaster, his poll numbers were falling, even his 11-year-old daughter was demanding, “Daddy, did you plug the hole yet?”

Griffin did as she was told: “I tried Pine-Sol, bleach, I even tried Dawn on those floors.” As she scrubbed, the mix of cleanser and gunk occasionally splashed onto her arms and face.

Within days, the 32-year-old single mother was coughing up blood and suffering constant headaches. She lost her voice. “My throat felt like I’d swallowed razor blades,” she says.

Then things got much worse.

Like hundreds, possibly thousands, of workers on the cleanup, Griffin soon fell ill with a cluster of excruciating, bizarre, grotesque ailments. By July, unstoppable muscle spasms were twisting her hands into immovable claws. In August, she began losing her short-term memory. After cooking professionally for 10 years, she couldn’t remember the recipe for vegetable soup; one morning, she got in the car to go to work, only to discover she hadn’t put on pants. The right side, but only the right side, of her body “started acting crazy. It felt like the nerves were coming out of my skin. It was so painful. My right leg swelled -- my ankle would get as wide as my calf -- and my skin got incredibly itchy.”

“These are the same symptoms experienced by soldiers who returned from the Persian Gulf War with Gulf War syndrome,” says Michael Robichaux, a Louisiana physician and former state senator, who treated Griffin and 113 other patients with similar complaints. As a general practitioner, Robichaux says he had “never seen this grouping of symptoms together: skin problems, neurological impairments, plus pulmonary problems.” Only months later, after Kaye H. Kilburn, a former professor of medicine at the University of Southern California and one of the nation’s leading environmental health experts, came to Louisiana and tested 14 of Robichaux’s patients did the two physicians make the connection with Gulf War syndrome, the malady that afflicted an estimated 250,000 veterans of that war with a mysterious combination of fatigue, skin inflammation, and cognitive problems.

Meanwhile, the well kept hemorrhaging oil. The world watched with bated breath as BP failed in one attempt after another to stop the leak. An agonizing 87 days passed before the well was finally plugged on July 15. By then, 210 million gallons of Louisiana sweet crude had escaped into the Gulf of Mexico, according to government estimates, making the BP disaster the largest accidental oil leak in world history.

Yet three years later, the BP disaster has been largely forgotten, both overseas and in the U.S. Popular anger has cooled. The media have moved on. Today, only the business press offers serious coverage of what the Financial Times calls “the trial of the century” -- the trial now underway in New Orleans, where BP faces tens of billions of dollars in potential penalties for the disaster. As for Obama, the same president who early in the BP crisis blasted the “scandalously close relationship” between oil companies and government regulators two years later ran for reelection boasting about how much new oil and gas development his administration had approved.

Such collective amnesia may seem surprising, but there may be a good explanation for it: BP mounted a cover-up that concealed the full extent of its crimes from public view. This cover-up prevented the media and therefore the public from knowing -- and above all, seeing -- just how much oil was gushing into the gulf. The disaster appeared much less extensive and destructive than it actually was. BP declined to comment for this article.

That BP lied about the amount of oil it discharged into the gulf is already established. Lying to Congress about that was one of 14 felonies to which BP pleaded guilty last year in a legal settlement with the Justice Department that included a $4.5 billion fine, the largest fine ever levied against a corporation in the U.S.

What has not been revealed until now is how BP hid that massive amount of oil from TV cameras and the price that this “disappearing act” imposed on cleanup workers, coastal residents, and the ecosystem of the gulf. That story can now be told because an anonymous whistleblower has provided evidence that BP was warned in advance about the safety risks of attempting to cover up its leaking oil. Nevertheless, BP proceeded. Furthermore, BP appears to have withheld these safety warnings, as well as protective measures, both from the thousands of workers hired for the cleanup and from the millions of Gulf Coast residents who stood to be affected.


On Earth Day, eight ways to eat with the planet in mind


What’s food got to do with loving the planet? Everything. The global food system -- from production to consumption to waste -- contributes to one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture is the single largest user of land, worldwide, and agricultural chemicals pollute lakes, streams, and rivers.

The good news is that we can grow food abundantly without hurting the environment. In fact, sustainable farming practices play a key role in remediating watersheds, protecting soils, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And, since we all eat, each of us has a role to play in choosing food that protects the planet. Here are eight ways to eat with the planet in mind.

1. Don’t panic, go organic. When you choose organic-certified products or sustainably grown food, you’re supporting production methods that are good for the planet. Sustainable farmers use ecological practices to manage pests or “weeds.” These farmers develop fertility on the farm, instead of relying on energy-intensive mined minerals and artificial fertilizers, which can runoff and create aquatic dead zones that leave oceans choked with algal growth.

Read more: Food, Living


Ask Umbra: Watts up with lightbulbs?

Send your question to Umbra!

Q. Dearest Umbra,

I know you’ve written about lightbulbs before, but it seems like there are lots of new options on store shelves. Are incandescents even being sold anymore? And what about LED lights? I tried some a few years ago and, in addition to being hella expensive, the light they gave off was cold and blue and institutional -- I couldn’t stand it. Are there other low-energy varieties? Which kinds of bulbs work with dimmers? Can you -- ahem -- shed some light on this confusing subject?

Liza E.
Battle Creek, Mich.


A. Dearest Liza,

Thanks for reminding me that it’s time for our semi-demi-hexi-annual revisitation of the lightbulb topic. And what better day than Earth Day to undertake this quest? For years, “change a lightbulb” has been cited as a simple step people can take to help the planet. Now even that command is starting to feel complicated, a state of affairs that does not help our cause.

But I promise it’s not really as complicated as all that. For those with short attention spans, the answer is: Go buy LEDs.

Here’s the rest of the story:


A tale of two Earth Day heroes: Tim DeChristopher and Sandra Steingraber

Tim DeChristopher
Tim DeChristopher.

Earth Day, oddly, has never been a huge deal for me. I’m just a little too young to really remember its remarkable debut in 1970, when one American in 10 went out in the streets to demand action on clean air and water. That unprecedented activism laid the groundwork for the swift passage of legislation, and the almost-as-swift rehabilitation of lakes and rivers. But in the years after, many Earth Day celebrations drifted in a slightly more corporate direction; there wasn’t anything wrong with them, but they didn’t seem to be helping arrest environmentalism’s slide into relative impotence.

This year, however, the holiday really resonates, because there are two heroes reminding us of the sacrifices they’ve made to move the fight forward, and the way the rest of us need to step up our game.

One is Tim DeChristopher, who will be out of federal custody today after serving 18 months for an inspired act of civil disobedience. He participated in an auction for federal leases to drill for gas and oil even though he ... wasn’t a rich oilman. The federal government was unamused—instead of charging him as an activist who’d pulled off a creative stunt, they treated him as a financial criminal whose intent had been to defraud. (This was the same Department of Justice that didn’t manage to find anyone to prosecute for bringing down our financial system with their greed.) And so he’s given up a year and a half of his life.


Coconuts, from nose to tail

In Sri Lanka, the coconut is a source of life. Not only is it the main ingredient in most Sri Lankan dishes, but the entire coconut tree -- from the roots to the coconut itself to the tips of the leaves -- plays a major role in non-culinary ways of life. Without the coconut, things in Sri Lanka would be very different. We spent the day with a family of eight on their coconut plantation outside of Negombo, where they showed us all the humble coconut has to offer.

Read more: Food, Living


Show us your Earth Day

"Yo -- somebody say something about a party up in here?"
"Yo -- somebody say something about a party up in here?"

This year, Earth Day annexed a whole weekend for reflection, fun, and simple acts of change. What are you doing to celebrate? Grist wants to know: Show us in words, photos, videos, tweets, Vines, comments, and smoke signals.

Share your pictures and the stories behind them on Facebook, in the comments below, or on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #tellgrist.

Read more: Living


GOP goes hunting for EPA emails about turducken

email keyboard

Earlier this month, when a burst pipe spilled thousands of gallons of heavy oil into an Arkansas suburb, the message from the White House went something like: “Everybody chill, the EPA has it under control.” But reporters on the scene found the cleanup orchestrated by the same company, ExxonMobil, that allowed the spill, and heard only crickets when they asked the EPA about its involvement.

Turns out, on some of the nation’s most pressing environmental health issues, the EPA’s transparency record isn’t exactly crystal-clear.

So with a vote on President Obama’s new pick to head the EPA, Gina McCarthy, coming up as soon as next week, it perhaps isn’t a surprise that congressional scrutiny of her nomination has centered more on the agency’s secret-keeping habits than on its environmental enforcement goals. At a hearing last Thursday before the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, McCarthy got grilled on EPA’s transparency record by Republican members, led by Louisiana’s David Vitter. On Tuesday, the committee’s Republicans sent a memo demanding details on her plans to open up the agency’s inner workings.

But for all their zeal, Vitter and his GOP colleagues (including climate change denier-in-chief James Inhofe [R-Okla.]) might be barking up the wrong tree: A major thrust of their complaint against McCarthy, a feisty Bostonian currently overseeing EPA’s air quality division, hinges on the use of email aliases by top EPA officials and the possibility that they’ve used personal email accounts for official business, an issue currently under investigation by the EPA inspector general.

Outgoing EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Bush-era EPA head Christie Whitman both created official email addresses under fake names (Jackson’s was “Richard Windsor,” after a pet dog), apparently to circumvent a chronic deluge of spam. McCarthy says she doesn’t have an alias email and told the Senate committee she found only one instance of using her personal email for work -- which didn’t stop Vitter, in the memo, from demanding a full audit of her personal emails.

And while the use of unofficial email addresses beyond the reach of federal public records laws clearly raises the specter of important information being kept in the dark, few in the transparency or environmental journalism communities think it should be the focus of complaints about the agency’s openness.

“The concerns over fake emails are totally bogus,” says Joe Davis, a veteran environmental journalist and a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ freedom of information taskforce. “This wasn’t some made-up thing by Lisa Jackson to fool us all. They’re simply efforts to politically damage McCarthy and Lisa Jackson and EPA by people with an anti-regulatory agenda.”

Indeed, a review of a cache of “secret” emails from Jackson uncovered such pressing matters as whether “turducken” is a real thing (it is), and lyrics for a Santa-themed jingle about coal-ash regulation.



What I learned from a month of eating vegan

vegetable face plate

A little more than a month ago, I expanded Team Greenie Pig to four and set out on a month-long challenge to eliminate animal products from our diets. Would we discover an entirely new way of eating? Experience a miraculous increase in vitality? Or crash and burn spectacularly over an irresistible salumi plate? And would any of us end up converting wholly to veganism?

One thing we all agreed on: We learned a lot. Now it’s your turn: I encourage -- nay, dare -- you to try the vegan experiment yourself. It’s challenging, surprising, and utterly worthwhile. But before you do, here are some of those lessons we learned along the way.

It’s hard.

Surprise, surprise: Departing from the eating and cooking habits you’ve developed over decades -- particularly if you developed them in contemporary, fast-food-lovin’, steak-and-potatoes-havin’, pizza-partyin’ America -- is challenging. I normally eat meat sparingly and front-load my plate with veggies anyway, and still I found the strict vegan thing to be hard.

It’s the little things: I missed butter and cheese (way more than meat). A bunch of my favorite whole-grain products were blacklisted for their honey content. I struggled with suddenly becoming the “difficult" guest at dinner parties and evenings out. Convenience foods got a whole lot less convenient. And eating well requires research: “The real start-up cost to veganism is a massive increase in the amount of time it takes to evaluate, plan, and execute great food,” notes my fellow vegan-for-a-month, Matt.

I’m sure this gets easier with practice. But insisting that a paradigm shift in dietary habits isn’t hard is a real disservice to anyone who’s struggling to adjust to it.

But not that hard.

Read more: Food, Living